Two great books for when you’re feeling down and useless

Memoir on dying by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. Last night, in a bout of writer’s block/what am I doing with my life despair, (after spending the evening complaining to Tom about not writing and then watching two hours of Sci-Fi TV (“The Expanse”), I logged onto the New York Public Library website and downloaded two books to my Kindle: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami.

Starting at midnight, with Tom grumbling about the backlight, I started the Murakami, and at fifty percent through, decided to switch to Kalanithi’s memoir, thinking I’d get a taste and go to bed soon after.

I stayed up reading until 4:30AM, around the same time Tom got up to use the bathroom. When he came back to bed, I had finished it and was sobbing into my “Keep Calm and Bacon Nom Nom” night shirt, moved both by Kalanithi’s life and his wife’s tender description of his death.

Half awake, Tom said, “I hear some sniffling.”

“I just read a very sad book,” I said, sobbing into his chest though careful to pull the sheet between us first, “This neurosurgeon gets cancer and he writes about dying.”

“There there, Beefus,” Tom patted my head, “It’s irresponsible to be reading such depressing things so late.” And then he went back to sleep.

With swollen eyes and a snorting, stuffed nose, I turned to face the wall, mulling over what Kalanithi wrote, and how he wrote it: racing against the clock in the last eight months of his life! His body wracked with cancerous pain! Barely eating a few bites a day and wan on countless cancer and pain meds! Here I was, complaining about not blogging or not feeling motivated enough to finish a short story I’d started some three weeks ago, sometimes (insanely) wishing the days were shorter. For the past two months, when work was slow, I took pilates or spin classes to pass the time. Even if I wasn’t creatively productive, at least I wouldn’t be a fat slob. I bought groceries. Cleaned the apartment. Sent out the laundry. Watched TV – or rather, surfed Netflix’s endless waves of trash, looking for something to watch – and then ironically, felt glum when I realized that each shitty show or movie represented someone’s herculean effort: a finished script that had gotten made. Sometimes I read short stories and tried to dissect from them the writer’s techniques. But mostly, I read internet articles. Very rarely, I wrote.

Cover of Murakami's What I Talk about When I talk about running

And then I thought back to Murakami, whose memoir on running is in a much stiffer – well, Murakami-esque- voice but no less a writerly kick in the butt. He likens training and running marathons to novel writing. I realized, “I hate running! Probably for the same reasons I hate actually writing.”

I have never, not truly, gotten over the “hump” that all runners and writers seem to talk about, the point where they get past a certain point and the story seems to fall into place and the writing, while still difficult, feels like it is alive and driven and going somewhere. I’m a sprinter, and even then, the distances are too short – case in point: blog posts – to amount to the marathon of a larger, weightier work.

A doctor once measured my heart rate and asked me if I was a long distance runner. Apparently, a naturally low resting heart rate was ideal for endurance sports.

“Like Lance Armstrong,” he said. I laughed and added “athlete” to the list of things people have incorrectly assumed I was, by looking at or talking to me. (Writer, pianist, open-minded, Kazakhstani).

So new despair piling atop old despairs hit me like a ton of other people’s novels at 5AM until eventually, I fell asleep, sniffling at both the injustice of the larger world and the futility of my mind’s microcosm.

I woke hours after Tom had left for work. I looked in the mirror. My eyes were swollen like walnuts. Patches of my cheeks where the tears had dried just a few hours before felt like sandpaper. I had an hour before I needed to go to work. This was a rare occasion, when my presence was expected at a client’s, but looking at my face I thought I’d be doing myself a disservice to show up looking like I’d gone through a bitter breakup or a very poorly timed existential crisis. It would feel so much better, be so much easier to call in sick – emergency bowel issues is a universally understandable and favorite excuse of mine – and continue feeling sorry for myself from the comforts of home. I could just read some more and tell myself it was part of the writer’s process.

I picked up my Kindle and opened it to the part of Kalanthi’s memoir I’d reread before falling asleep.

“I’d always imagined the doctor’s work as something like connecting two pieces of railroad track, allowing a smooth journey for the patient. I hadn’t expected the prospect of facing my own mortality  to be so disorienting, so dislocating. I thought back to my younger self, who might’ve wanted to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race”; looking into my own soul, I found the tools too brittle, the fire too weak, to forge even my own conscience…

…And so it was that literature brought me back to life during this time. The monolithic uncertainty of my future was deadening; everywhere I turned, the shadow of death obscured the meaning of any action. I woke up in pain, facing another day – no project beyond breakfast seemed untenable. I can’t go on, I thought, and immediately, its antiphon responded, completing Samuel Beckett’s seven words, words I had learned long ago as an undergraduate: “I’ll go on.” I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” 

Literature brings him back to life and unbelievably, he goes back to work just eight months after his initial diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

“Why? Because I could.”  

My situation is a bit different. But I read to learn, and the literature student in me (one thing Kalanthini and I have in common, though he actually read Beckett whereas I only quote other people quoting Beckett), along with my inherent love for self-help, knows how to draw parallels. He needs literature to go back to the OR, his calling. I need to work to go back to writing, this thing I like to do from time to time and must do more of.

No one was there to see my self-reproof. No one but my puffy walnut-eyed face and what overall, I think, is still a writer’s conscience. I closed the Kindle and got up. I washed the face. Brushed the hair. Put on pants. I slapped on some sunscreen and a hint of lip color, which made the rest of the face look like plaster. On the way out I did some face exercises and tried to look alert. Maybe the bumpy subway ride would be like a rejuvenating massage. I opened the door and went to work.

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